Pros: Three-row versatility; comfortable front seats; lots of cargo space
Cons: Underpowered and thirsty engine; yesteryear's navigation system
If the 2012 Volvo XC90 could act, it would be a natural for the role of Rip Van Winkle. The XC90 made its debut as a 2003 model, which means it is now entering its 10th-10th!-year of production, with few changes over the intervening years. When the XC90 came out, George W. Bush was still in his first term, Saddam Hussein was still running the show in Iraq, and Facebook didn't even exist yet. So this venerable Volvo could be forgiven for rubbing its eyes and wondering where the time has gone.
The good news is that the XC90 has solid fundamentals, even by current standards. Its carlike underpinnings, which seemed daring a decade ago, are now more or less expected in a luxury utility vehicle. The seats are timelessly comfortable; the interior design is timelessly stylish. And there's always a market for three seating rows and big-time cargo capacity. In other words, this old guy can still play.
You'll have to look past the subpar engine and navigation system, but otherwise, the XC90 merits consideration. The world hasn't passed this Volvo by as much as you might expect.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Volvo XC90 is offered in base, Premier Plus or Platinum trim. It can also be outfitted with the R-Design package, which includes 19-inch wheels, rear skidplates, xenon headlamps, a sport-tuned suspension with more aggressive steering and a variety of sport-themed appearance tweaks. The base XC90 comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, front skidplates, a sunroof, interior walnut inlays, leather upholstery, power front seats, a third-row seat and an eight-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. The Premier Plus adds xenon headlamps for non-R-Design models, while the Platinum tacks on a 650-watt Dolby Pro Logic II audio system and a navigation system.
True to Volvo form, the XC90 is outfitted with some of the finest front seats in the business. If you think the phrase "drive-all-day comfort" is overused, blame Volvo, because its seats are probably what inspired that statement. The dashboard is less memorable because it lacks the "floating" center panel of newer Volvos. Nevertheless, we have to give credit to Volvo's designers of the past decade: this cabin still looks pretty sharp all around, and the materials are nice. Ergonomics are satisfactory, including the XC90's early version of Volvo's distinctive airflow controls, which take the form of a reclining human figure.
The XC90's second-row seat provides plenty of room for adults in its outboard positions, and the center position features an integrated child booster seat. The standard third-row seat will probably be used by kids only, but it does make the XC90 a legitimate minivan alternative. Cargo space is minimal behind the third row at 8.8 cubic feet, but there's a healthy 43.3 cubic feet if you fold the third row down and a full 85.1 cubic feet with both second and third rows folded. That's not class-leading maximum capacity by any means, but 85.1 cubic feet is still a whole lot of space.
We expected to ding the XC90 for not offering the latest technological niceties, but Volvo beat us to the punch, because very XC90 comes with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. Bravo! Less impressive is the optional flip-up navigation system atop the dash, which looks like a glorified Garmin portable unit. What's more, the controls are hidden behind the steering wheel where you can't see them, so you have to fumble around with your fingers and program by feel. We see no reason to spring for the pricey Platinum trim just to get this outdated nav, since your smartphone will do a better job anyway. The Platinum's other selling point, the 650-watt surround-sound stereo, is much more tempting.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The XC90's sole engine is a 3.2-liter inline-6 rated at 240 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. It's really not enough for a three-row luxury crossover by current standards. The 3.2 struggles to get the XC90 up to speed, especially with passengers and/or cargo aboard, and it sounds strained. At least the six-speed automatic transmission is generally well behaved. Fuel economy isn't a strong suit, either, checking in at 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway with either front- or all-wheel drive.
The 2012 XC90 features standard stability control and six airbags, including full-length side-curtain airbags. Only six? Don't worry; the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the XC90 its top rating of Good in every crash test category. As for the government, it hasn't tested the XC90's crashworthiness using its new methodology.
The XC90 has the smooth, quiet ride that luxury crossover buyers demand these days. All the more impressive, then, that Volvo already had this figured out over a decade ago. Handling is indifferent, even with the R-Design's sport-tuned suspension, but the XC90 feels stable and secure in sudden directional changes.
Other Cars to Consider
Acura MDX - Another three-row luxury crossover based on a front-wheel-drive platform, the MDX has a more satisfying engine than the Volvo, but perhaps a less premium feel.
Ford Flex - We have a soft spot for Ford's funky yet surprisingly upscale three-row crossover, especially with the optional EcoBoost turbocharged V6 under the hood.
Infiniti JX - The three-row JX is Nissan/Infiniti's new entry in the luxury crossover wars, promising strong V6 power and distinctive style.
Like most Volvos, the XC90 comes well equipped right out of the box. We'd stick with the base model at about $40,000; it's a decent value for a vehicle of this type.